Law is the system of rules which a particular nation or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties. In a nation, the law can serve to (1) keep the peace, (2) maintain the status quo, (3) preserve individual rights, (4) protect minorities, (5) promote social justice, and (6) provide for orderly social change. Some legal systems serve these purposes better than others.
Although a nation ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, it may also oppress minorities or political opponents (e.g., China, Zimbabwe, or Syria). Under colonialism, European nations often imposed peace in nations whose borders were created by those same European nations. With regard to the functions of the law, the empires may have kept the peace—largely with force—but they changed the status quo and seldom promoted the native peoples’ rights or social justice.
In nations with various ethnic and tribal groups, it is often difficult for a single, united government to rule effectively. In Rwanda, for example, power struggles between Hutus and Tutsis resulted in the genocide of the Tutsi minority. In nations of the former Soviet Union, the withdrawal of a central power created power vacuums that were exploited by local leaders. When Yugoslavia broke up, the different ethnic groups—Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs—fought bitterly rather than share power. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the blending of different groups of families, tribes, sects, and ethnic groups into an effective national governing body continues to be a challenge.
These situations highlight the struggle of a nation to implement and maintain the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law is a system in which laws are public knowledge, are clear in meaning, and apply equally to everyone. These systems uphold national political and civil liberties. Rule of law systems establish authority, create expectations for behavior, and establish redress for grievances and penalties for deviance. Governance of conflict and the attainment of peace among the governed are its primary goals. One of the greatest benefits of the Rule of Law is that it allows people to understand what is expected of them.
The United States is a Rule of Law System. The US Constitution is based on the principle that people have rights that cannot be taken away by the government. Instead, the role of the government is to protect the individual rights of its citizens. The US Constitution’s preamble states, “We the People…in Order to…insure domestic Tranquility.” This is just one example of how the US legal system was established to address the functions of a legal system.